Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Powder Burn Flash #4 - Patti Abbott

A Philadelphia Story

We all watched the day Sandra Riviera was escorted from her house by two men wearing vanilla-white uniforms much like the one the Good Humor man wore. Philadelphia row houses, and the street life their square footage necessitated, permitted constant scrutiny, and in the sixties, there were more children than trees on our street. None of our mothers called us inside that day, but instead peered out from behind Venetian blinds, hissing mumbled questions at our backs. Mrs. Riviera did not go quietly and her two children clung pitifully to the robe she still hadn’t replaced with the customary housedress—even hours later. Her feet were bare and her purse swung wildly from one of the attendant’s arms. The cacophony was mesmerizing in the summer heat.

Mrs. Riviera’s departure followed quickly her morning’s appearance at the October PTA wearing pink rollers and a stained chenille bathrobe that swung open when the breeze caught it. We assumed Mr. Riviera had arranged for her escort from his shoe store up in Pottstown. Generally, he slept in Pottstown during the week, coming home only on the weekends. This was an odd arrangement for the time and much was made of it on our street. All the other fathers slept with their wives in bedrooms so small that the twin bed arrangement we saw in the movies or on Leave It To Beaver was out of the question.

Sheryl and Mark Riviera, ages 10 and 11, stood on the pavement crying for a few minutes before Luther Voorhees pulled up. He was the first black man any of us had seen close-up. Well-dressed and handsome, he drove a late model car, making him seem even more out of place. We were only familiar with “colored” people who rode streetcars and dressed in the uniforms of the service industry at that time.

These were the questions people asked in the days ahead: Where does Luther sleep? Is he on parole? Does he know this is a white neighborhood? But Luther’s confident manner didn’t permit such questions to be asked directly. We accepted him much like a black, male Mary Poppins. Soon he was answering the Riviera’s door, taking the children to school, cooking dinners. The yard had never looked better and he washed the windows every two weeks. If he finished work early, he was known to throw the ball around with the neighborhood boys in the alley or pontificate on interesting matters—like why Superman needed Clark Kent for a cover or why the Phillies would never win the pennant. He was brighter, nicer and better-looking than anyone else we knew.

The trouble didn’t begin until Sandra Riviera returned home. We guessed wearing rollers to the PTA didn’t necessitate a long-term stay at Norristown, the closest hospital for…that. Only a few of the neighbors witnessed her homecoming, but they reported it was Luther Voorhees who brought her back. He helped her out of the car and most people said she smiled her biggest smile for him right on the street. Sandra Riviera was an attractive woman, we children were told. If she hadn’t been crazy, she’d probably have made a better match than Mr. Riviera with his squinty eyes, snooty manner and low-end shoe store.

The questions arose again, of course—especially the ones about where Luther slept. There were only three bedrooms and now five people lived in the tiny row house. Nobody had finished basements yet. It was 1961. Basements were called cellars and the floor downstairs was concrete.

Mr. Riviera probably began to wonder too because suddenly he came home unexpectedly some days. The drive was a long one and when we saw his silver and pink Bel Air in front of the house on a Wednesday afternoon, we knew what he was thinking. Still he didn’t fire Luther or send him back to Pottstown. He probably couldn’t take the chance of leaving Sandra alone. Or of losing such a good housekeeper or au pair. Some of the men said Luther had something on Mr. Riviera. He knew where the bodies were buried, we heard them say.

When we first heard the shot, it was anybody’s guess who the victim was. Maybe crazy Sandra Riviera had shot her husband? Perhaps Luther was a convict and familiar with firearms? Probably Mr. Riviera had found them in bed and killed his wife or her lover.

It turned out Mark Riviera, age eleven, had shot his father. He heard Mr. Riviera tell Luther to pack his bags and went for the gun. Luther had to leave after that, of course. No one would allow a black man to stay put once they’d carted off Mr. Riviera’s body. And this time, the men in white took both Mark and Sandra away. Only Sheryl, age ten, remained at home with a grandmother who should have come in the first place. Or so people said.

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